Ancient 'Ondol' Heating Systems Discovered in Alaska

What are believed to be the world's oldest underfloor stone-lined-channel heating systems have been discovered in Alaska's Aleutian Islands in the U.S. The heating systems are remarkably similar to ondol, the traditional Korean indoor heating system. The word ondol, along with the word kimchi, is listed in the Oxford English Dictionary. The ondol heating system is widely recognized as Korean cultural property.

According to "Archaeology", a bi-monthly magazine from the American Archaeological Society, the remains of houses equipped with ondol-like heating systems were found at the Amaknak Bridge excavation site in Unalaska, Alaska.

The leader of the excavation, archaeologist Richard Knecht from the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, said in an interview with the Chosun Ilbo on Monday that the team began the dig in 2003. Radiocarbon dating shows the remains are about 3,000 years old.

Until now the oldest known ondol heating systems were built 2,500 years ago by the Korean people of North Okjeo in what is now Russia's Maritime Province. The Alaskan ondol are about 500 years older, and are the first ondol discovered outside the Eurasian continent.

Professor Knecht said four ondol structures were discovered at the site. Other ondol structures were found in the area in 1997 but it was not known what they were at the time.

According to Knecht's data, the Amaknak ondol were built by digging a two- to four-meter-long ditch in the floor of the house. Flat rocks were place in a "v" shape along the walls of the ditch, which was then covered with more flat rocks. There was also a chimney to let the smoke out.

Professor Song Ki-ho of the department of Korean history at Seoul National University looked over the Amaknak excavation report. "All ancient ondol are one-sided, meaning the underfloor heating system was placed on just one side of the room. The ondol in Amaknak also seem to be one-sided," he said.

As the ondol of North Okjeo and Amaknak are more than 5,000 kilometers apart, Knecht and Song agree that the two systems seem to have been developed independently.

This theory is backed up by the fact ondol have not been found in areas between the two locations, such as Ostrov, Sakhalin or the Kamchatka Peninsula, and because the Amanak ondol are significantly older than those of the Russian Maritime Province.

englishnews@chosun.com / Jun. 26, 2007 07:05 KST